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Should gay people trust Pope Francis to hug it out?

Poor Joseph Aloisius Ratzinger. Holed up in the Mater Ecclesiae monastery behind Peter’s Basilica, his papal signet ring smashed, his ermine capes gathering dust in the closet, his handsome secretary serving him only part-time. No amount of clicking the heels of his custom-made ruby red slippers will ever make Ratzinger as popular as Jorge Mario Bergoglio, who, when he was inaugurated last March, named himself Pope Francis after the sweetest, dreamiest, wood-nymphiest saint there is. As God’s representative on planet Earth, popes aren’t democratically elected but, like the royals, they’ve been forced into a position where they need charm. Pope Benedict XVI had absolutely none.

Pope Francis—he who hugs the afflicted, eats with the poor and carries his own suitcases—is both prom queen and class nerd, overlord and underdog, while poor Pope Benedict XVI, in control of the Catholic Church for a mere eight years, was the pompous jerk you didn’t want to get stuck with in the corner at a party, someone who looks like a bad tipper and a bad kisser.

It was poor, unlovable Ratzinger, working under Pope John Paul II, who wrote the 1986 Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons that declared that gay and lesbian people have a “disordered sexual inclination which is essentially self-indulgent… As in every moral disorder, homosexual activity prevents one’s own fulfillment and happiness by acting contrary to the creative wisdom of God.” John Paul II was a popular pope in some circles, no doubt, but this letter drew a very clear line, with gay and lesbian people on the unholy side of it.

And then—Francis. Last summer, jetting home from a visit to Brazil, where Catholic youth carried a cross past Speedo-wearing gay beach bunnies on Ipanema Beach to honour the occasion, the new pope answered a reporter’s question with this much-quoted line: “If a person is gay and seeks God and has good will, who am I to judge?”

With that one remark, all bets were off. Had the massive ship of the Roman Catholic church—which has, officially, seen gay people and women as something not quite holy, has perpetrated and covered up sexual abuse and has contributed to the global spread of HIV/AIDS—made a complete 180? Were all those years since Vatican II, a dramatic 1960s effort to modernize the church, just a bad dream? Is it just a matter of time before Pope Francis writes his own Letter to the Bishops welcoming LGBT people to the church?

No. Probably not. The papacy is like the Supreme Court. Whatever your beliefs, it’s awkward to reverse your immediate predecessors. But it doesn’t matter anyway. The days of popes having the last word ended in the last century. Pope Francis might be turning the ship around, but Catholicism has already taken on too much water.

Back in the mid-1970s, when Tony Adams was a priest in Rome, he met two future popes: Ratzinger and Bergoglio. Now a gay writer and editor, Adams has suggested publicly that Ratzinger is a closeted homosexual. “But I never got the impression that he was having sex,” laughs Adams. “Most cardinals and bishops are not getting laid. That’s part of the reason they’re so homophobic. They’ve given up sex and they can’t understand why we can’t do it.” Though Adams has a photo of himself in a group with the future Pope Francis, he doesn’t have any specific memories of Bergoglio, considered at the time to be quite conservative. But Adams, who no longer practices, believes that Francis’s “kinder, gentler Pope” image is not the product of spin doctors, it’s authentic.

“Already his themes are very clear and they should be of consequence for LGBT Catholics,” says Adams. “To start, he’s big on forgiveness, the Prodigal Son Bible stories. You don’t stop forgiving. Now, he does believe that people are capable of sin. But if I were to go to confession with him and confess I was staying at a gay clothing-optional guesthouse in Key West where I was having a lot of wonderful sex with other visitors—which I would not confess because I don’t think it’s a sin—he would not be inclined to walk away from that confession. I don’t think he would express horror.”

Adams implies a lot. But it’s true that in Francis’s first landmark work as Pope, the Evangelii Gaudium, published last November and which carries much more weight than his off-the-cuff comments on the jet, Francis reminds priests “that the confessional must not be a torture chamber.” Actually, the Evangelii Gaudium is full of not-so-subtle jabs at the pious and the judgmental: “There are Christians whose lives seem like Lent without Easter.” “Rather than experts in dire predictions, dour judges bent on rooting out every threat and deviation, we should appear as joyful messengers.” “I prefer a Church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets.” “One of the more serious temptations, which stifles boldness and zeal, is a defeatism which turns us into querulous and disillusioned pessimists, ‘sourpusses.’”

Sincere or strategic, it’s a sweeping rebranding. At times, Pope Francis seems to be delivering a “Down with the one per cent!” speech drafted by the Occupy Movement. His “No to an economy of exclusion,” which sent US conservatives into apoplectic fits, is most definitely a shout-out to social-justice advocates on the left—a smart move that cuts across generational and gender lines.

“Some of the things he says inspire me,” says Marie Bouclin, an ordained bishop of Roman Catholic Women Priests Canada (romancatholicwomenpriests.org/index.php) who, as a result, has been excommunicated from the Roman Catholic church. Although Francis has reiterated that John Paul II shut the door on the possibility of women priests, Bouclin, who is a straight grandmother, welcomes a simpler, more inclusive, less clerical pope who seems to side with the persecuted.

Frank Testin, president of the LGBT Catholic group Dignity Canada Dignité (dignitycanada.org/), who describes himself as ecumenical, is also optimistic about Francis. But he doesn’t expect any rapid change. Forgiveness and loving your enemies are welcome messages, but gay and lesbian people would rather not need forgiveness for their orientation. “Official teaching condemns any form of romantic activity between same-sex couples. All LGBT persons, under all circumstances, everywhere for all time, must be celibate,” says Testin. “It robs LGBT persons of the opportunity to be fully human.”

Francis has also ruled out reconsidering abortion. The best-case scenario for women might be female cardinals, a position which can be held by non-priests. Same-sex marriage and openly gay priests remain delusional dreams. Still, Adams suggests Francis could take the baby steps of permitting the official existence of the group Dignity and allowing special LGBT ministries.

Of course, some of this already happens “off the books” in many dioceses. Non-Catholics often have difficulty getting their head around the yawning gap between what the Vatican says and what Catholics actually do.

Hypocrisy—or ethical sophistication, if you prefer—is intrinsic to Catholicism. As a devout young Catholic, I somehow picked up the belief from catechism and my youth group that sex before marriage was not a sin if you loved somebody. Obviously, I had failed to read 1975’s Declaration on Certain Questions Concerning Sexual Ethics, written to put an end to the idea that Vatican II had eased prohibitions on premarital sex, masturbation and homosexuality. It’s easy to get confused. Go ask your straight Catholic friends if any of them eschew artificial birth control, a sin of comparable offence to homosexuality. Francis’s seemingly genuine desire to be humble and open stands in opposition to a multi-layered institution which also likes to be pompous and closed.

Even if Francis succeeds in making the Roman Catholic church more compassionate, will it be enough to reverse the church’s fortunes? A major WIN-Gallup International survey suggested that the percentage of the global population who consider themselves religious dropped to 68 per cent from 77 per cent in the seven years between 2005 and 2012. In Canada the drop was much larger—from 58 per cent to 46 per cent. While the number of Canadians who consider themselves Roman Catholic has stayed pretty much steady since 2001 (12.73 million according to the 2011 census; about 12.8 million in 2001), church attendance has declined dramatically. If religion was sex, many Catholics would be considered celibate. While more than 40 per cent of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics live in Latin America, that’s the region where attitudes toward LGBT people seem to be changing most rapidly. Same-sex marriage has been legalized in Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay and parts of Mexico, a country Pope John Paul II famously called “always faithful.”

Church teachings are increasingly irrelevant.

“Is Francis polishing brass on the Titanic?” wonders Adams. “I’m not sure the next generation sees a need for religion in the same way.”

Then again, those who see the church as an intrinsic and perennial foe of LGBT people might justifiably despair at Pope Francis. Though doomed to fail in the long run, his gentler, friendlier Roman Catholic church might extend its life by a few years or decades. Pope Benedict XVI’s pugnacious fast-track to oblivion is over.

 

 

BAD BOY POPES OF NOTE

Pope Boniface VIII (ruled 1294-1303)
Suspected of being the first atheist pope (and of liking men, though he sired children from at least two nieces), Benedetto Caetani believed he had absolute authority on heaven and Earth. Dante, who had been exiled by the pope, depicted Boniface VIII in Hell in his Divine Comedy.

 

Pope Paul II (ruled 1464-1471)
Jokingly called Maria Pietissima or “Our Lady of Pity,” Pietro Barbo was known for his love of fine clothes and for crying when he didn’t get his way. When he was cardinal, he promised all his fellow cardinals he’d buy them each a villa if he was chosen pope. He reneged.

 

Pope Leo X (ruled 1513-1521)
Giovanni di Lorenzo de’ Medici was so ill from sexually transmitted disease when he was appointed pope, he had to be carried to the conclave on a stretcher. A patron of Michelangelo and Raphael, he threw parties where naked boys would emerge from cakes. BTW, he also triggered the Protestant Reformation.

 

Julius III (ruled 1550 to 1555)
After adopting a 15-year-old street urchin as his adoptive son/nephew, Giovanni Maria del Monte appointed the young man as a cardinal and put him in charge of diplomacy and politics. It was said they shared a bedroom. Shades of Michael Jackson.

 

Pope John XXIII (1958-1963)
Angelo Roncalli launched Vatican II, the most dramatic 20th-century reforms to the Catholic church, and in doing so started rumours that he was gay. His self-deprecating sense of humour was a component of his popularity: “Anybody can be Pope; the proof of this is that I have become one.”

 

Pope Paul VI (1963-1978)
Rumours that Giovanni Battista was gay were so pervasive, he once asked a friend in government to intervene with Italy’s tabloid press. He was reported to go out at night in plainclothes disguises so he could socialize with “suspect characters.”

 

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